"It will be like a 1950s election": the 2015 election in review

One Labour frontbencher had predicted the result five years ago - but by accident. 

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“It [the 2015 election] will be like a Fifties election,” one of the Labour leadership contenders told me, gleefully, in 2010. They foresaw the Liberal Democrats paying a terrible price, and politics returning to its two-party setting: Labour against Tory.

And they were right: the 2015 election looked exactly like a 1950s election: the Liberals reduced a rump of odds and sods, dotted around the country, with little prospect of achieving gains for the foreseeable future, and the Conservatives firmly in power. Just as in 1951, 1955 and 1959, what looked like a relatively narrow victory over Labour in terms of the popular vote was in fact, when you look at the pattern in individual seats, a heavy defeat across the country.

In Scotland, too, what happened looked a lot like a 1950s election: just not a 1950s election in a European country. The SNP achieved a result that was remarkably similar to that of post-colonial states in the 1950s and 1960s: the party of independence securing either a straight majority or a high plurality of the popular vote, with the parties of the old regime finishing a distant second.

Outside of Scotland, British politics returned to its default setting: Conservative government. For the first time since 1997, Labour started the campaign not from Downing Street but from party headquarters. And for the first time since 1997, the Tories are in office alone, without any pesky Liberal Democrats.

It also represented, if not the final defeat, at least a severe setback for Westminster's West Wing fanatics. Not because the tiresome "Let Miliband be Miliband" turned out to be a shorthand for "Let Cameron be re-elected",  but because, after five years of talking about Barack Obama, the Obama campaign, David Axelrod, and the rest, what happened at the election was entirely in keeping not with what happens in the States, but the pattern of politics in Europe since the crash. Two things have happened to the traditional parties of the left in Europe since then - they have been forced into coalitions with their traditional opponents, and suffered crushing electoral defeat as a consequence. That, of course, happened to the Liberal Democrats. The other thing that has happened is that centre-left social democrats have been knackered by challengers to their left and populist parties of the right. After five years of talking about how Ukip would help Labour, Nigel Farage's party ended up doing more damage to Ed Miliband's party than David Cameron's.

And now Jeremy Corbyn's insurgency has effectively brought the Podemos/Die Linke effect inside the structures of the traditional centre-left party. British social democrats are in a cage match while their continental counterparts are in a street fight. It remains to be seen which is the better path in the longterm. 

A lot has been written about the election but I think there are a few noteworthy scenes from The General Election of 2015 that highlight why the election played out as it did. Ultimately, while large aspects of Labour’s campaign, particularly in ground game and on the Internet, were well-run but under-financed (the two campaigns used the same techniques, but the Conservatives spent more on them), at the very top, the Tories – and the SNP – were simply more professional than Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

When Ryan Coetzee attempted to enforce message discipline on the Liberal Democrats, it was Nick Clegg who proved one of the most difficult to keep in line. When Cameron was presented with negative figures on public trust in the Conservatives and the NHS, he wrote a note to his advisers saying “Give me the right language in speeches and physically attack [his emphasis] me with the right words before interviews. I will do what I am told.” When Labour’s American pollster, Stan Greenberg, brought figures showing Labour weren’t trusted on the economy to Miliband, he replied asking “Do you have to be so negative?”

The other important moment, I think, is when a Liberal Democrat reflects on how different the campaign would have been if the polls hadn’t been wrong. Instead of focussing on the mechanics of coalition, the party would have instead had a very different message: “The Tories are going to win, and they’re going to eat your baby.”

Would it have made the difference? Personally, I doubt it would have put Ed Miliband in Downing Street. The “Miliband propped up by the SNP” message didn’t, I think, prove so devastating because English voters feared Nicola Sturgeon – but because they didn’t trust Miliband. Imagine a campaign around Gordon Brown being bossed around the SNP, or Tony Blair being bossed around by the SNP – it simply doesn’t fit with our conceptions of those leaders. (Or, to look ahead, imagine the same thing said about Jeremy Corbyn. Labour’s new leader stares down internal opposition in his party every day – the idea he wouldn’t do the same to the SNP just doesn’t work as it did with Miliband.)

It might, of course, have saved a few Liberal Democrats at the margins. But I’m not convinced that it would have made much difference.

The British general election of 2015 is published by Palgrave. This is a more concise version of what I said yesterday at the book’s launch.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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